Sharing life tales in new ways; Technology: By putting the material they gather on the Web, oral historians make its truths more available to a greater audience.


It's one thing to dispassionately relate how the Navy razed Cedar Point in St. Mary's County to build the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in 1942. It's another to hear the story from someone like Richard Mattingly, whose father managed Susquehanna Farms:

"Daddy had just completed the barn, which was about 2 years old. It had tongues and grooves with a loft and a floor, 23 tie stalls and 11 box stalls, a harness room and a feed room. It was 60 feet by 130 feet. I think it cost somewhere around $8,000 to build, which was a powerful amount of money in 1940. The Navy gutted that and used it for a garage. That hurt me worse than anything they could have done. They could have had the house; I loved that barn."

Mattingly's recollections, along with those of scores of other Cedar Point residents, are stored on tape and distilled into a series of oral history volumes called "Slackwater."

The project, founded in 1985 and administered by Andrea Hammer, a literature professor at St. Mary's College, has allowed history to emerge from its black-and-white recesses into a colorful field of vision. "Working with this project has been transformative for students; I see it all the time," she says. "I think that it has a lot to do with knocking down the walls separating the classroom from the places we live every day."

Oral history, a method of gathering and preserving historical information through recorded interviews, is the oldest form of inquiry, but it is also a child of technology. In the 1940s, the introduction of the tape recorder was an enormous advance for those who sought verbatim accounts of past events, people and places. And now, with film, video and the Web, oral history has entered a technologically sophisticated era that offers infinite possibilities for teachers and others seeking to reveal the immediacy of the past.

Those possibilities will be explored tomorrow at a daylong conference presented by members of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, an affiliate of the Oral History Association. Guests at the College Park gathering include Alan Berliner, a New York filmmaker whose tragi-comic documentary, "Nobody's Business," a densely layered attempt to know his father, will be screened and discussed.

Oral historian Charles Hardy of West Chester University will talk about his "essay in sound" called "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home: How Web Publication Transforms Oral History Practice." In a workshop, Glenn Whitman, a Maryland schoolteacher, will lead participants through select oral history Web sites and explain how he uses them to teach American history.

Scan the Web, and you will find multiple sites devoted to oral history. There is, for example, the "Family Farm Project," a three-year study of farm and community life in Knox County, Ohio, by Kenyon College students. Web surfers also can find an oral history of the year 1968 called "The Whole World Was Watching," a remarkable collaboration between a Providence, R.I., high school and Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group.

On the Talking History home page, Web ramblers can download a series of radio programs devoted to subjects such as "Life After Steel," a documentary by Dan Collison on the life and death of Chicago's last big steel mill, or Danny Gotham's "Avalon Blues: Remembering Mississippi John Hurt."

Putting oral history documents on the Web expands access to material that might otherwise collect dust on an archive shelf, says Whitman, who oversees an oral history project at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Potomac. Web access also allows teachers to integrate oral history into their curriculum and scholars to do research at home, Whitman says.

Rather than alienate us from our roots, technological advances bring us closer to them, Berliner says by phone. "What the high- tech world is doing is putting affordable, easy-to-use, accessible lightweight tools in the hands of anyone and everyone," he says. "The potential is rather overwhelming."

Our instincts are to start with whom we're closest to, says Berliner, who also filmed a documentary about his late grandfather, "Intimate Stranger." He believes this urge to know ourselves through our family is a revolt against the "solutions of life offered up by Hollywood."

As the gap widens "between the pathos and pleasure of real life and what's thrown up there [on screen] as false idealistic models of what really happens to people, there's more and more need for stories people can relate to and understand, grounded in real experience," Berliner says.

Over the years, oral history has earned respect as a legitimate form of documentation. Around the country, oral history archives (some with Web sites) abound at museums and universities, where they form a foundation for further research, books, films, articles, exhibits and performances. In September, oral history's value was recognized by the White House, when Jaquelyn Dowd Hall, founder of the Southern Oral History Project at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, received a 1999 National Humanities Medal.

Oral history has "gone from something that was tangential to historical studies, mostly gathering materials for others to use, to become a center of historical interest," says Ron Grele, of Columbia University's Oral History Research Center. He attributes oral history's acceptance in part to an attempt in the 1960s "to recover the history of people who left no documents: women, African-Americans, Hispanics, working-class people."

As they complete oral histories, the St. Mary's College students not only learn about the past; they also discover the elusive nature of truth. "You can talk to two people of the same generation, and they just don't share the same history," Hammer says. For instance, there are Southern Marylanders who recall moonshine-running days, and there are those who swear it never happened because they were protected from the reality, she says.

As Hammer supervises the Slack-Water project, she also has to warn students not to draw facile conclusions about their findings and frame them in conventional narrative forms. It was tough, for example, to make them realize that the naval base's arrival at Cedar Point wasn't a clear- cut "bad guys vs. good guys" situation. To "draw conclusions about the base, you have to do damage to all kinds of contradictions and complexities across the board," she says.

There are pitfalls aplenty when working with the material of another person's life. But if it is done correctly, with the right technological touches, a more universal truth -- one that rises above individual interpretation -- can be had. A purist might scoff at Berliner's use of stock footage in "Nobody's Business" showing a house falling into the water during a hurricane to illustrate familial turmoil. But he and his admirers, many oral historians among them, say that such editing finesse only enhances his efforts to illuminate the past of a sad old man, and connect that past to the rest of the world.

For Berliner doesn't want his work to just speak for itself. "I hope like any person doing any kind of personal narrative, you want it to transcend the specificity of the work on many levels, to be metaphor. You want to build a boat that is not only seaworthy in a safe haven, but can withstand the rigors of the ocean; the ocean where fictional characters live."

You have to take chances to go beyond easy sentimental fare, Berliner says. His father's resistance to the project "motivated me to go further. One of the lessons of the film is that any life that's looked into deeply and passionately, perhaps rigorously, yields mythic stuff."

In their own words

What: "Visualizing Oral History: Oral History in Film and on the Web"

When: 9: 30 a.m. to 6: 30 p.m. tomorrow; registration at 8: 30 a.m.

Where: National Archives II building, Adelphi Road, College Park

Cost: $45 for the public; $25 for students. For directions,call 301-713-6500. For conference information, call 410-514-7653.

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